Biden defends Saudi trip, says will not avoid human rights
US President Joe Biden said on Thursday he would not avoid talking about human rights when he visits Saudi Arabia on the second leg of his Middle East trip and said his position on the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi was "absolutely" clear.
"I have never been quiet about talking about human rights," Biden told a news conference following a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid in Jerusalem. "The reason I am going to Saudi Arabia though, is much broader, it's to promote U.S. interests," he said.
"And so there are so many issues at stake, I want to make clear that we can continue to lead in the region and not create a vacuum, a vacuum that is filled by China and/or Russia."
Biden's trip to the kingdom, where he is expected to meet King Salman as well as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has faced opposition in the United States given accusations that Khashoggi's killing by Saudi agents in 2018 in Istanbul was orchestrated by senior Saudi officials.
A U.S. intelligence report last year concluded that Bin Salman approved and probably ordered the murder of Khashoggi, an insider-turned-critic whose column in the Washington Post had criticized the crown prince's policies.
Biden, who has called the Saudi government a "pariah" for its role in the 2018 assassination, said his views on the killing were "absolutely, positively clear."
"I always bring up human rights but my position on Khashoggi has been so clear. If anyone doesn't understand it in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else, they haven't been around for a while."
"For the Saudis, I do think this is a win," said Carolyn Kissane, Assistant Dean at New York University's Center for Global Affairs. "I think the realization is that Saudi Arabia still does wield a lot of power.”
How the White House handles the optics of the meeting and whether photos will be released of it will be closely watched.
Aides say he will bring up human rights concerns while in Saudi Arabia, but he has nonetheless drawn fire from a wide array of critics.
“Biden is being caught basically making a very, very big U-turn. Right. He's retreating from his earlier positions," Kissane said. “I think that the administration hopes that they will come out with at least the perception of a win, the perception of some, you know, outcomes of this visit. I think there is a lot that is at stake.”
Biden will participate in a bilateral meeting with the king and the crown prince on Friday.